ROSEMARY LOW’S LETTER (January 9 issue) adds to the developing debate in these pages about the keeping of foreign birds. Further contributions will appear in the forthcoming weeks. From my position “on the sidelines”, two things seem clear: first, that entwined in this conversation are some of the most important birdkeeping issues of our time; and, second, that there may be a tendency among those in the debate to talk past one another rather than to one another.

Let’s return to where we began this topic, with Ray Holland’s article in the July 25 issue last year. Mr Holland cited the view of one eminent breeder of foreign birds who “suggested we should never bother breeding spreos and the like, but should concentrate our efforts on the rare and threatened species in the wild for conservation reasons. Where on earth would that place youngsters or anyone new to birdkeeping? Out in the cold?”

Now let’s face the question squarely: is conservation the ONLY justification for our keeping and breeding foreign birds? To which my answer is NO: fun and skill and learning and a dash of competitive instinct (oh yes!) are all proper elements in the valid pursuit of aviculture as a hobby.

It’s a spectrum, isn’t it? At one end – the higher end, no doubt – are the professional conservationists, sternly committed to preventing extinctions. At the other extreme are the “back-yard breeders”, the cheerful amateurs who love foreign birds and love to show the rest of us new ways of enjoying them. And guess what? Those two instincts – for pleasure and for conservation – are frequently united in the same individual people. It isn’t, and should not be, either/or.

Of course, that glibly overlooks another critical question: does the demand for hobbyist stock feed the black market in illegal imports and thereby work against conservation? This is where responsible birdkeeping comes in, and the practices that we develop together, in the wider birdkeeping community, are going to shape the future of both aviculture and conservation. Always remember: it’s going to be about making things better, not perfect.

Potentially, at least, organisations such as the Avicultural Society (and this paper, I hope) can unite the two ends of the spectrum I’ve described and help to develop those practices. Your views are, of course, extremely welcome!

Enjoy your birds this week.